Tuesday, November 17, 2009

What Good Is It?

So Janiece has been making me think recently. She pulled out the old canard that an MBA was worth no more than a year’s subscription to the Wall Street Journal. I don’t agree, but on the other hand, despite holding the degree, I am somewhat ambivalent about the value of my education.

But I have to stand up and defend the degree itself. First of all, the original purpose of the degree, back when most Americans still made stuff instead of shuffling paper, was to take Engineers and other technical staff and prepare them to be business leaders within their silos, with perhaps the option of making them strong general managers as well. A good program was supposed to give those staff a broad general education in the rudiments of all aspects of a business, from Finance to Marketing. Most good programs also encourage a specialization so that the student acquires some deep specific skills in a particular area of business. Given that substrate of student, the MBA program is still remarkably good at turning out better managers.

In my own career journey, the education I received in business school was invaluable. I would not have been ready to take on a business role after working in an Industrial lab for a few years. No way, no how. I had too many preconceived notions and arrogance coming out of obtaining a Ph.D. I learned pretty quick in business school how much I thought I knew about how the world outside academia worked was wrong. None of the scientists I work with today could do my job without an MBA or other business training, despite having more years in the industry than I do.

So what specifically did business school do for me? First, it gave me rudimentary skills in the major areas of a modern business so that I can evaluate the concerns of different lines with my projects. It would have taken me years of real-world work experience in a number of different positions (which I may or may not have been qualified to occupy) to get that broad a view of business operations. If, indeed, I was lucky enough to get the right assignments to see all of those lines.

I knew nothing of financial instruments before business school, and the Corporate Finance and Accounting classes gave me a really good grounding in that aspect of business. Now, I find Finance about as much fun as watching paint dry, despite my proclivity for numeric activities, so I took the minimum in that area. People who concentrated in finance got real world projects from real firms to work on as part of their course work. A Journal education (which admittedly is slightly better than a University of Google education because the Journal staff acts as a bozo filter) would not provide that hands-on experience.

Likely as a bench scientist I would never have seen the HR side of modern business (the courses in which were surprisingly useful, though it is perhaps unsurprising that most real-world HR I’ve come into contact with does not practice what I learned in those classes). The Journal is especially weak on HR. In my HR class I was required to approach a company and ask for confidential information on their HR practices so that we could perform a benchmarking evaluation. What the company got out of the deal was an independent appraisal. I had connections with what was then the largest laser company in the world from my previous life, and they opened up their entire operations to my team. It was an amazing learning experience, and one I never would have gotten on the job or in a Journal education.

Beyond those basic classes, I concentrated in Strategy and Marketing. I took classes in Consumer Behavior from one of the world’s leading experts in consumer psychology. I took quantitative research methods and survey instrument design form another leading expert. I came out of B-school with specific, useful skills that I immediately put into practice on my first job. Skills I didn’t have as a scientist, and skills that take time and money to acquire. Skills you can’t get from the Journal.

A good business school should provide more than a case-based education, although cases do have their value. The main deliverable at my school was tied into several courses, and used the content from all of them for a practical purpose – mid-to-large-tier businesses sent the school projects for the students to work on all year as consultants, and we had to present and defend our recommendations just as an actual business consultant would. The teams that worked on those projects were selected by the school, so that a balance of industries and experience was represented on each team. Although the Journal can provide some insight into other industries, there is no other way outside of business school to be thrown into a project with people of such varied backgrounds. I worked on that team with people from the fashion industry, high tech, wood and paper products, steel making, insurance, and other industries. The price of the MBA was cheap compared to the value of that kind of cross-fertilization of ideas.

Which brings me to the international diversity aspect. The make-up of my class was about 45% foreign. Most of the Americans marveled at the large ratio of foreigners. Coming from a science lab, I marveled at the novelty of a class with a majority of native-born Americans. :D

That had a huge impact on my educational experience. And the diversity ran deep – we were not dealing with Americanized immigrants, we were interacting with people who were going to go back to their native countries and do business.

My team had several foreigners on it, actually by luck of the draw we had less than the average. However, we made up for that with quality. Two of my best friends on the team brought a lot of perspective to the project. One was a Finance guy from Hugo Boss in Germany, and a Lieutenant in the Bundeswehr Reserves. The other guy was going to school on company plastic – and the company was Nippon Steel. I probably owe my present career, which I entered because my original group needed someone to deal with the Japan office, to two things – the fact that I got the real scoop on Japanese business practices (and not recycled Nikkei news articles via the Journal) from Kunio, and the fact that the business school offered Japanese language as an elective. I made a very convincing case that I knew what the heck I was talking about when my interviewers asked about Japan. I didn’t know everything by a long shot – in no way was I ready for a senior level position, but I was in a position to do a good job in an entry level slot, which is what I was being asked to do.

Beyond that, I made a point to enter foreign-dominated groups in the self-selected teams in other classes. In most of my non-marketing classes I wound up working either with Kunio and another Japanese, or with a couple of Turks. I got good international exposure from them, and they benefited from my quant skills. In business school more than any other graduate program except the JD, peers matter. In my marketing classes I wound up working with a couple of Korean guys. Many a dinner with them and Kunio gave me real insight into the business and political relations between their two countries. To be fair, most of the Americans gravitated to American-only team when given the choice.

Now that brings up an important point – I got a lot out of business school because I’m the type of intellectual vampire who seizes every opportunity to learn something and sucks it dry until the veins are making that empty milkshake sound. Less motivated people get less out of business school, and one of the problems with the MBA degree is that the material is really not rocket science, with the exception of some of the more esoteric finance stuff and a bit of the quantitative statistics in predictive market research – topics which can be easily avoided by the lazy. Any reasonably good parrot can do enough to get out of the even a good program with passing grades. There is really no filter in the program beyond the initial selection process. Thus programs with easy admission requirements generally issue diplomas that would find better use as tissue paper.

Now I went to a school that’s in the second tier in the Business Week rankings, but still well within the top 50 business schools in the world. I got a good enough education that I can compete successfully with graduates of Harvard, Yale, MIT, Chicago and Wharton. But those people have a couple of edges on me. The bottom quartile of their class was probably equal to the middle quartiles of mine – their peers pushed them harder, and on average had more experience at Fortune 100 companies prior to matriculating. They also got social networking advantages I didn’t, because Donald Trump sends his kids to Wharton, not a second tier, high value-for-money institution. Educational Return On Investment means less to families at the top of American business than it did to me.

I think that on the whole, a business education can be a very valuable experience.

But there are too many business schools and too many MBAs out there, and outside of the coasts, it’s a lot more likely you are interacting with the dregs of American business education.

Unfortunately there is an over-reliance on credentialism within American business. The MBA at lesser programs is now nothing but a signal of ambition. Thus, the proliferation of MBA programs has led to relaxed admissions of people who really don’t have the background to make the most of their business education. There is an administrative assistant with an MBA at my company. It’s a Podunk MBA, from an institution not respected enough to get her a job using it at my company, yet she’s over credentialed for her current position. If she goes somewhere else and gets a job using that degree, she won’t have the skills of the people who graduated from my school. That’s an issue.

Given my own experience, I’d say that an institution that is too small to attract a significant number of real world projects for its students, not prestigious enough to attract top students who push their peers, and has less than 30% foreign students is not likely to produce MBAs of much value.

In addition to that, the ratio of full-time to part time students matters. I don’t have much use for executive or part time MBAs. Executive MBAs take people with years and years of experience, but who are lacking that special piece of paper. I’m not sure how much value the MBA adds in that case. Part time MBAs miss the whole benefit of an MBA. The students take night classes with the same peers from the same local businesses, removing much of the cross-fertilization of ideas from different industries. The number of foreigners tends to be very low, reducing the impact of student diversity. And finally, the programs often take 5 to 7 years to complete at one or 2 night classes per semester. The other benefit of an MBA is to immerse students in topics from all over the business world at one time so that they begin to see the connections between the silos. Taking the classes one at a time reduces the student’s ability to see those connections, and taking them over 5 years ensures that the material from 5 years ago ahs been completely forgotten by the time the degree is granted.

It seems to me that business education is in a very similar state to Medical Education before the Flexner Report. I’d like to see a lot of programs forced to improve or close. The quality rapidly drops off beyond the top 70 or 80 schools (world-wide not US), and graduates from those other institutions give the rest of us a bad name.

That’s not the only issue with the MBA degree. Graduates of the top schools have their own issues as well. The idea that the skills that the MBA imparts give one a deep understanding into the mechanics of all businesses is a pernicious one. There is no substitute for experience in (and passion for) an industry. Legions of bloodsucking, useless consultants, themselves graduates of top-tier MBA programs, reinforce this notion.

A lot of the problems in the modern business world come from managers who talk about their products in a generic sense. One of the stupidest things I ever heard came from such an MBA, something to the effect that if he were to split his business up and one person were to take the people and equipment, and he were to take only the brand names, he’d do better than the person with the goods. That statement pretty stupidly discounts the contributions of all those people who do the actual work of bringing a product to the customer. A brand is a quality signal, and unless he could maintain the same quality with his mercenaries and rented plants, those brands would disintegrate. Ask Magellan.

The MBA is a starting point. Denigrating it in the absence of any other business education is a mistake. The school matters, but most importantly, what one does with it matters. More than any other professional degree, it means little outside of the context of the holder's work history and work ethic. But with it the hard worker becomes that much more valuable.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Free Flow

My friend Janiece just reminded me of one of the reasons I'm a small "L" libertarian: unlike the Ayn Rand fan club, I recognize the limits of the free market.

The free market is the best device ever invented for the fair distribution of goods and services. But the efficiency of the free market depends on several conditions, and one of those is the free flow of information, and relatively equal access of that information to all the players in the market.

I'm not talking about the fact that Proctor and Gamble does not disclose that Joy and Dawn dish detergent are based on the very same patents, and are likely almost identical, save for the price. If you fall for that, you deserve to give P&G a little more of your hard-earned money than would otherwise be the case. Marketers make a lot of money on low-involvement decisions. It's a sort of tax voluntarily paid by the unwary to maintain a free market that is not over-regulated. Not to mention that the law mandates that the patent numbers be printed on the bottle for transparency. What more do you want, someone to read it for you? Read the fine print yourself and caveat emptor.

But we all take a little more care with high involvement purchases, which are de facto the ones that take a significant chunk of cash to make. In those instances, reputable sellers make sure that all the information is available to the buyer. Investing should be one of those high-involvement areas where the market is forced to operate at great transparency. GAAP, fund prospecti, 10Ks and the like keep everyone honest.

Which is why derivatives bother me. I'm a relatively smart guy, I hold an MBA from a top school, and I'm pretty math-savvy. I damn sure don't understand how all the risks in derivatives are accounted for, nor how ownership of that risk is distributed. Given the implosion-prone nature of derivative markets, I'm pretty convinced those people who do say they understand such things really don't.

This is exactly analagous to the illegal practice of buying on margin. In a normal market where people are betting with their own money, prices reflect the wisdom of the crowd on the rational expectation of future cash flows from an investment. Rational people can spot bubbles and avoid them. Although irrational actors can temporarily distort the market, they generally get what they deserve when the market returns to its natural equilibrium.

When people are borrowing to make stock purchases, the information on the crowd's confidence in the solidity of the the investment (reflected in the price) is hidden, distorted, or completely absent. The market breaks down because information is no longer transparent. In a similar way, the inability to track risk and accountability with derivatives distorts the natural feedback mechanisms that allow the market to self-correct.

This is why we need regulators, despite the very real issues of regulatory creep and capture. It is in maintaining the balance of ideals and real-world issues when the system is stressed that one can separate the rational libertarian from, say, Ron Paul.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Al Qaeda Associated Movement

My last couple of posts, as well as some of the comments over at Jim's, apparently have elicited quite a bit of puzzlement and consternation. I think that's because I haven't been very clear in what I've been talking about when I say that our public institutions have apparently been compromised by radical Islam. 

What I mean is this: radical Sunni Islam overtly intends to destroy Western civilization and enslave all non-Muslims. This is not a secret: it is the overt, public teaching of Salafism and Wahhabism's most important leaders, including Ibn Taymiyyah, ibn Abd al-Wahhab, Sayyid Qutb, Abdullah Azzam, Omar Abdel Rahman, and Osama bin Laden. 

To that end, Salafists and Wahhabists have devoted themselves to jihad in many different ways, but the ultimate objective is the same: our destruction. 

Osama, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and al Qaeda have pursued an integrated, primarily military and information-based strategy to undermine our institutions, while the House of Saud and other Saudi-based Salafists and Wahhabists have pursued political and financial strategies. These different strategies are coordinated and complimentary, however, and are extremely complex and sophisticated. They are not, in general, secret - Islamic leaders are loquacious in describing their strategies for our destruction. Anwar al-Awlaki (gosh he's been in the news a lot lately) has been particularly vociferous and eloquent about destroying the country of his birth. Please read Awlaki's "44 Ways to Support Jihad": it pretty much covers everything I'm talking about. 

The most insidious facets of the overall Salafist strategy of jihad are the compromise of our institutions from within, via political and financial influence, and the socialization of the Ummah to the radical Wahhabist/Qutbist ideas about jahiliyyah and jihad. These two facets work together. 

The socialization of the Ummah, or promoting the teachings of Taymiyyah, Wahhab, Qutb, et al, has been the most dramatically effective of all the strategies of jihad sponsored by the House of Saud. It created al Qaeda and the al Qaeda movement, which inspires individuals or small groups of jihadis to carry out terrorist attacks against Western targets without any guidance or sponsorship from the central AQ leadership. That appears to be what happened last week with Nidal Malik Hasan.

Compromise of our institutions is a complementary strategy: it enhances and amplifies the effectiveness of unilateralist jihad. This is a very Leninist approach - Lenin wrote that the corruption inherent in capitalist systems would prove their undoing. The Islamists are simply using their wealth to help speed things along. At the same time, an army of Islamic lobbyists plays upon our inherent guilt to promote the idea that any opposition to the Islamist agenda is racist and intolerant. This theme of course finds a very receptive audience among American liberal elites. In that way anything we might do to counter their strategy is immediately neutralized.

We've been fighting hard in Iraq and Afghanistan when the most critical front in the "Global War on Terrorism" is right here at home. The Islamists are laughing with undisguised glee at our willingness to help them in their jihad against us. 

Oh well - I still haven't scratched the surface of this subject. It's pretty hard to encapsulate the ultimate clash of civilizations in a blog post, even several blog posts. I will keep trying as time permits.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Terrorism Analysis

I was about to say we do a very bad job at analyzing terrorist networks, but then I thought about it and realized we do a lot of very good analysis. We have lots of amazingly smart analysts who do some great work and undoubtedly save a lot of lives.

Unfortunately, the record is spotty, however. We have done pretty well at breaking the back of al Qaeda in Iraq, probably because the counterterrorism analysis was integrated with a broad strategy of counterinsurgency, civil affairs, political action, foreign internal defense, and direct action. Our performance isn't bad in other areas of the middle east, where there are few barriers to all-source collection, analysis, and dissemination.

It's only when you come back to CONUS that things get really ugly. Within our own borders the political correctness disease has substantially crippled our otherwise-reasonably-competent capabilities.

This situation opens an obvious opportunity for our adversaries: come here and be safe. The evidence is clear that they did just that.

Understanding that phenomenon is the key to understanding what happened with Nidal Malik Hassan.

The evidence is abundant and readily available that the "Wahhabi Corridor" in Northern Virginia has played an ongoing, key role in coordinating and facilitating Salafist terror in the United States. What's astounding is the coverup, by the ostensible victims of those many terrorist plots, that has kept this huge threat to our national security - and indeed the lives of every ordinary Americans - from the public consciousness.

It's very hard to understand why this is happening, but it seems to be the ultimate perversion of political correctness. Ralph Peters has been eloquent in recent days about how this mass psychosis has completely permeated the US Army. Quote from LTC Peters:

Had Hasan been a Lutheran or a Methodist, he would've been gone with the simoom... If heads don't roll in this maggot's chain of command, the Army will have shamed itself beyond moral redemption.

Anyone out there who considers themselves a liberal or a progressive, please clue me in: what is the argument that this situation ISN'T an example of domestic terrorism inspired and sponsored by the al Qaeda associated movement? I keep hearing from the MSM that the main problem with this terrorist attack is the reaction of the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy. What's the logic there? Why is the MSM determined to cover up or deny the role of radical Islam in inspiring the actions of Major Nidal Hassan?

But the original point of this post is about analysis. I expect the MSM to confuse and distort the facts. The more important question is why the many obvious warning signs about this guy were ignored or deliberately covered up by people who have less-clear motivations to do so. Why does the US Army have a vested interest in promoting al Qaeda's agenda? That's what I don't quite understand. I think it has something to do with the death-grip the MSM has on the Washington bureaucrasy, including the leadership of the Army in the Pentagon. But I'm not sure about that.

It's like a mass psychosis, where a whole lot of people have an artificially distorted perception of reality. The American people don't seem to have the same delusions - as far as I can tell, 100% of ordinary folks understand that radical Islam motivated Nidal Hasan - compared to approximately 0% of the MSM and the Army's leadership in the Pentagon. That kind of dichotomy is certain to have unpredictable, but dramatic, effects.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Nidal Malik Hasan

The recent tragedy at Fort Hood has reopened a very interesting subject that has never been resolved, or even thoroughly investigated: the relationships of al Qaeda and the 9/11 hijackers to the radical Islamic community in the United States.

Nidal Malik Hasan is an ethnic Palestinian born and raised in Virginia (AKA Northern Virginiastan). He attended the notorious Dar al-Hijra mosque in Falls Church, VA (AKA Falls al-Church) at the same time as at least two 9/11 hijackers, while the even-more-notorious Anwar al-Awlaki was the Imam there.

These facts are all over the internet, but the real significance behind them has not been published anywhere that I've seen yet. Of course the MSM's reflexive denial of the role radical Islam played in yet another terrorist act is almost a cliche at this point, but it really looks like this guy may have had some pretty explosive connections.

The 9/11 hijackers who attended Dar al Hijra were Hani Hanjour, Nawaf al-Hazmi, and probably Khalid al-Midhar. For the uninitiated, Hanjour, al-Hazmi, and al-Midhar were all aboard American Flight 77 when it struck the Pentagon.

Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Midhar were the only 9/11 hijackers who attended the al Qaeda Kuala Lumpur summit meeting in January 2000, where key decisions related to both the Cole bombing and the 9/11 attacks (along with other al Qaeda operations) were apparently made. What that means is that they were not just stupid "muscle" hijackers but rather veteran al Qaeda operatives around whom Osama bin Laden and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed originally organized the 9/11 attacks. They were famous for their relationship with Omar al-Bayoumi, the Los Angeles station manager for Dallah Avco, the charter airline that belongs to Saudi billionaire Saleh Kamel. It was also al Midhar and al Hazmi, you may or may not recall, who were the receipients of mysterious checks sent from Saudi Ambassador Prince Bandar's wife Princess Haifa in the months before 9/11.

This is a very complex story that is worth a number of blog posts, although I doubt I'll have the time to do the story the justice it deserves. What is important to understand is the nature of the "al Qaeda affiliated movement" (or AQAM as it is known to acronym-happy bureaucrats) and the role of the Saudi-funded and directed global network of Wahhabist mosques and Islamic centers.

Dar al Hijra in Virginia is part of the so-called "Wahhabi Corridor" in Northern Virginiastan, an area of greater concentration of connections to al Qaeda terror than any place outside Afghanistan. It was founded with Saudi money and influence in 1983, during the great Saudi Islamic and Wahhabist outreach movement that sponsored the construction of over 80% of the mosques in the world today. That movement was an explicit policy of the Saudi kingdom to radicalize Islam worldwide - and it largely succeeded. Almost all Sunni terrorism traces its ideological roots to the Saudis' Wahhabist missions, and apparently Nidal Hassan is just the latest example.

The big question now - as his influence by Saudi-sponsored Salafist-Wahhabist proselytizing by radicals such as Anwar al-Awlaki seems beyond dispute - is whether his connections to al Qaeda or even the 9/11 hijackers are more than coincidental.

To determine the answer to that question, we probably have to look farther back - to well before 9/11, and take a much closer look at the global network of Saudi-sponsored Salafist organizations.

As early as 1991, the Saudi government sponsored a program to convert US military servicemembers to Islam and recruit them for jihad. This effort later evolved into the program that sought to train and commission muslim chaplains in the US armed forces. The original conversion effort was directed by radical Islamist (and unindicted co-conspirator in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing) Bilal Philips on US bases in Saudi Arabia and the chaplain program was run by convicted al Qaeda financier Abdulrahman Alamoudi.

These efforts had varied results over the years. One overt result was the 1993 "Landmarks" al Qaeda plot, for which al Qaeda recruit and former US military member Clement Hampton-El was convicted. Hampton-El told a very interesting story of meeting members of the Saudi royal family (apparently Prince Sultan bin Faisal bin Turki, who died under very mysterious circumstances shortly after 9/11) as part of an effort to recruit more former US servicemembers to wage jihad in Bosnia. Later this strategy involved famous al Qaeda double agent Ali Mohamed, who was associated with practically everyone else in this post.

So maybe we won't find a "smoking gun" connection between Nidal Hasan and al Qaeda (although I wouldn't bet on it), but he clearly was influenced by the same religious and political themes that define the "al Qaeda associated movement". Clearly a lot of people failed in their obligations to heed the ample warning signs this guy sent up. More importantly now, what will we do to determine how many other Nidal Hassans are out there looking for the right opportunity or motivation to act?

Saturday, November 7, 2009

A Little Advice

...from Uncle John.

If the frog in your throat is making you sound like the ghost of Barry White being run through a wood chipper, you might be tempted to soothe your vocal chords with alcohol.

And if, as a moderate drinker, all the strong liquor you had in the house amounted to a finger of Jim Beam, a finger of Johnny Walker Black, and a large amount of the rotgut Sobieski in a plastic bottle that your wife uses as cooking vodka, you might be tempted to mix all of those into a three finger kill-the-germs gargle / cocktail.

Yielding to that temptation would be so, so wrong, on so many levels.

Just sayin'. o.O